Pharis Romero of Pharis & Jason Romero talks with C&I about their new album, Sweet Old Religion, available now.
Canadian duo Pharis & Jason Romero have delighted crowds with their folk repertoire and seamless harmonizing, earning them a Juno Award, a Western Canadian Music Award, and several Folk Music Award nominations.
Their new album, Sweet Old Religion, showcases the group’s songwriting talent and is a harbinger of even more success.
The husband-and-wife duo’s passion for music extends beyond making it together: They also make banjos in their workshop in Horsefly, British Columbia.
We recently talked with Pharis Romero about Sweet Old Religion, their banjo workshop, and their upcoming tour.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope your fans will get out of the new album?
Pharis Romero: A feeling of light, love, and the sense of connection we feel with our rural life, our kids, our greater community of musicians and luthiers and friends that feel like family. Also a feeling of the years of experience that go into the moving melodies and phrase lines when we play music together. And the enjoyment that we get out of a little grit in our singing and playing.
C&I: What are some memorable stories along the way of getting the album from concept to actual release?
Romero: For the recording part, we recorded most of the record in our banjo workshop in Horsefly, transforming one end of it from a slightly dusty workshop — Jason is a freakishly clean woodworker— to a baffled studio with amazing gear brought up from Vancouver by our engineer, John Raham, and microphones borrowed from some dear friends. John; our producer, Marc Jenkins; and bassist Patrick Metzger all stayed with us in Horsefly. John saw a wolf while taking a walk up the back of our property one morning. He'd never seen one before, and we took the whole gang out tracking the three wolves that had come through early that morning right into our yard. Between recording we soaked up the crisp blue sky days of very early winter/late fall weather, ate incredible food by my old friend Laura [Matthias] (check out her cookbook, ExtraVeganza), and pulled espresso shots on a gorgeous lever machine a buddy passed on to us. Our dear friend Grace watched the two kids while we recorded, and they came out to the workshop to listen to each song after we'd recorded it. Both kids spontaneously bust out in song all the time, and it’s always a thrill when the song is one of ours.
C&I: What was the writing and recording process like? Where did you draw inspiration from?
Romero: Nearly all the songs on the album were written after an intense fire destroyed our banjo workshop, along with many of our personal things, old guitars, and just-finished banjos, in the summer of 2016. When the shop burned we were in the beginning stages of building a house, with a 2-month-old and a 2½-year-old in tow, and it was an intense way to spend a summer, building the house and rebuilding the shop at the same time. We fed and housed and loved up a small army of people working and helping, and received so much support from our close and extended communities. When everyone left in October the songs started pouring out, many stemming from trying to sort out the very big feelings we were having after the summer, gratitude for the help we received, the love for our kids, respect for where we live, and a desire to live our days the best we can.
Sound-wise, we both love the natural sounds of instruments and voices, with a little padding around them for fullness. As a luthier Jason’s always thinking about banjo tones — so much so that he will build a banjo to be able to create a specific tone he has in his head. And we love the woody dry sounds of old instruments (Jason plays a c.1935 Gibson L-00, and I play a 1939 Gibson J-35). We had so much fun with more experiments with sounds on this record. On “Leave the Garden Gate Open,” a circus of a song, we did some vocal doubling, Marc played the pedal steel with a trumpet tuning key, Patrick added some crazy great upright bass bowing, and I even spontaneously meowed at one point (it’s in the final mix, way down low, but it’s in there).
C&I: Do you have a favorite song or track your most proud of?
Romero: We’ve talked this back and forth and can’t actually pick a favorite. Jason sometimes leaned towards “Age Old Dream” as it’s such a badass banjo tune with weird guitar chords behind it (we recorded it with the banjo tuned in an F-sharp tuning, and the guitar tuned down half a step), while the sonic picture and flow of “Old World Style” [make it] such an intense pleasure to play and sing. I sometimes lean toward “You Are a Shining Light” as I wrote it for a friend who passed away after a long experience with cancer, and recorded it after four nights of insomnia — it was a truly magical experience to record. “Sweet Old Religion” is the song we’ve been playing longest out of any on the record, and it feels like a bit of a touchstone. “Babes, Mothers and Fathers” was written for (and a bit by) our daughter Indigo and is probably some of the most heartfelt songwriting I’ve ever done. But, really, we’re proud of every track on this record.
C&I: Who are some of the singers and songwriters that have inspired your creative development and made you all want to become artists?
Romero: There’s a lot. It’s impossible to put them in order or to create a finished list, but to start: Riley Puckett, John Hartford, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, Snuffy Jenkins, any of the early bluegrass and old-time recordings, the Carter Family, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tom Sauber, Tim O'Brien, Dirk Powell, Bruce Molsky. ...
C&I: Are there any tracks that didn’t make it on the album that we can expect later on down the road?
Romero: A couple, but we’re always writing and learning new songs, so it’s hard to know when or even if they’ll ever surface into a show. Every once in a while, we go back into the old songwriting notebooks and a song that didn’t work before suddenly makes sense, and we’ll start touring it then.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring?
Romero: Festivals and camps in western Canada and the USA this summer [Pharis is artistic director for a singing camp in Washington], western Canada in the fall, the Netherlands and UK in spring 2019, and a whole lot of festivals in summer 2019. West Coast USA fall 2019. All these tours are with two kiddos and a nanny in tow, so they have a particular flavor to them. We’re always balancing the needs of our kids, the wait list for custom banjos — we’ve got a four- or five-year waitlist for banjos these days — and time to garden, work and play outside, and hike some mountains.
C&I: You are Juno Award-winning musicians and instrument makers. How have those accomplishments shaped your career?
Romero: Being self-employed, we’re happy to have a few ways to make our living — and having all the ways be things we do because we really love them is a gift. I also do design work for folks sometimes, and make jewelry out of leftover banjo construction materials when a bit of time shows up. The experience that comes from building instruments for over 15 years now, and winning a Juno, gives us a solid footing to keep building our work and life on as we try out new songs, new instruments, and new approaches.
C&I: What’s something that fans might not know about you two?
Romero: Jason is an avid fly-fisher (been doing it since he was a kid); he got an eight-piece travel fly rod for Christmas last year, so we can find more fishing spots for him while we’re on the road. I would happily spend my entire day figuring out what songbirds are calling in the bush, then digging in the dirt in the garden and greenhouse. We finished an earth-pit-style greenhouse last year that is going great guns this year, and we’re excited about seeing how late in the year we can keep food growing (we stand a good chance of getting only two frost-free months most years). We’re pretty crazy about locally produced food, we’re trying to remove plastic from our lives as best we can, and we’re plotting a micro-hydropower system to power our house and workshop.
For more information on Pharis & Jason Romero, their new album, and upcoming tour dates, visit their website. Photography by Rick Magnell.